Tag Archives: history

Thinking about Portsmouth’s WW1 Army Heroes

Join the brave throng that goes marching along...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

I’ve started thinking about how I’m going to write up the stories of Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes. So far I have analysed something like 2,672 soldiers, and almost 300 sailors and Royal Marines, out of a total of more than 5,000 servicemen and 3 women.

There are so many names and stories, its really difficult having any idea knowing where to start. In an ideal world, I would write a full chapter on all of them. But with space constraints, I’m really interested in hearing what people would like to read about, or which stories you think are really important to ‘get out there’. Particularly with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war coming up in 2014.

  • The Portsmouth Pals – the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, recruited solely from Portsmouth men who volunteered after the start of the war to join Kitcheners Army. Their story has never really been told before, but by my reckoning over 300 men were killed serving with both Battalions
  • Portsmouth’s Commonwealth Soldiers – how did young men from Portsmouth end up serving with the Imperial Armies? According to my research 43 men died serving with the Australian, African, New Zealand, Canadian and Indian Forces.
  • Lt-Col Dick Worrall – a Portsmouth man who had served in the ranks of the British Army, emigrated to America and joined the pre-war US Army, then once war was declared went to Canada and volunteered. He was quickly commissioned, and ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel, and the holder of a DSO and Bar and MC and Bar – a remarkable story.
  • The Old Contemptibles. 156 men from Portsmouth were killed in 1914, before Britain had fully mobilised. Hence many of them were probably regular servicemen.
  • The Royal Flying Corps. Four young men from Portsmouth were killed serving with the Royal Flying Corps, at least two of them either in flying accidents or in action.
  • The Tank Corps. The First World War saw the advent of the tank as a major force in warfare. 10 Portsmouth men died serving with thee Tank Corps.
  • Brothers in Arms. Many families lost more than one son in the war – many lost two, some three, and one poor family lost four sons in action. I would like to take a look at this element of the human cost.
  • Gallipoli. At least 91 men from Portsmouth were killed in Gallipoli, a campaign beset by disaster which has perhaps not had as much attention through history as it should have.
  • Mesopotamia. 94 men from Portsmouth were killed in Iraq, many at the disastrous siege of Kut in 1916. Many more were captured, and suffered terribly in captivity. Again, I feel that its a campaign that has been much ignored in history, particularly given how the British Army has found itself fighting in Iraq at least three times since!
  • Oddities. I would like to be able to write about the interesting little stories that perhaps don’t fit in anywhere else, or don’t quite warrant a chapter on their own. Like the elderly Royal Engineer who was sent on grave registration duties after the armistice, and died after drowning in a Canal in Belgium.
  • Prisoners of War. We don’t ever hear much about WW1 Prisoners of War, yet at least 12 servicemen from Portsmouth died in Germany whilst being held as prisoners.

Any thoughts at all would be very welcome!

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

Hougoumont and D’Erlon’s attack – the DVD by Battlefield History TV

Much to my regret I’ve never managed to visit the battlefield at Waterloo – the closest I have got was a realisation at Brussels main station that we didn’t have enough time to get to Waterloo, have a good look, and get back again in time for the Eurostar. But in lieu of a visit in the past 10 years, this DVD, and the others in the Waterloo series, are easily the next best thing.

I’m somebody who has devoured everything about the battle of Waterloo that I could lay my hands on – down to playing with little cut out squares of paper, each representing a unit, when I was but a wee lad. Not to mention being ever so slightly obsessed with Sharpe.But even I learnt something from this programme – in particular, the amount of depth given to the attack on Hougoumont was fascinating. I also enjoyed the little ‘diversions’ from the battle, to explain aspects such as the British heavy cavalry sabre, or the French Artillery system.

What I really like about this programme, is that you actually feel that you are there. You are given a very good feel for the lie of the land – what Montgomery would have called ‘smelling the battlefield’. That’s one thing that is very hard to put across without actually being there, so to convey that sense by DVD is a great achievement. The height of Hougoumont’s walls, the steepness and proximity of the French and Allied ridges, and the feel of the cropfields. There are some great graphics in this as well, perfectly illustrating the conduct of the battle, and some pretty interesting scenes of living history enthusiasts on the battlefield itself.

Using experienced battlefield guides at experts makes complete sense – the experience in showing visitors round the battlefield shows. In fact, the programme feels very much like a virtual battlefield tour, from the comfort of your own armchair. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hougoumont and D’Erlon’s attack can be purchased from Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Napoleonic War

Hitler Triumphant: Alternate Histories of World War II edited by Peter G. Tsouras

I’ve always been a bit dubious about alternate histories. I’ve always thought of them as ‘what might of happened, but didn’t happen’. Therefore if it didn’t happen, why are we worrying about it? But then again, I guess thats like saying that just because something is in the past then it’s irrelevant, as its behind us. Just as understanding the past gives us a handle on the future, understanding how past events turned out how they did probably gives us a firmer grip on that handle. Confused? me too! Now that we’ve established that alternate histories and conspiracy theories are not the same thing, lets take a look at this thought provoking book.

One thing you can say about Hitler, is that perhaps no-one in history has shown such inconsistency when it comes to decision making – at times he had an impeccable intuition, and at other times managed to cock things up when it was far easier to get it right. It is, surely, a matter of conjecture to imagine a scenario in which Hitler might have won the war – the strength of the US and Soviet Union made it pretty unlikely in my mind. But, certainly, some aspects of the war might have turned out very differently.

Let’s consider some of the chapters. In ‘May Day’ by Nigel Jones, Lord Halifax becomes Premier instead of Churchill, who is made Minister for War. Churchill is killed flying over France in 1940, the Panzers do not pause before Dunkirk, the BEF is overwhelmed and Hallifax sues for peace. This set of circumstances were by no means impossible. Hallifax seemed to be everyones preferred candidate to succeed Chaimberlain. Churchill was lucky to escape harm during the war. And, above all, Hallifax did not have the gumption to keep up the fight when things got tough.

Operation Felix sees the Spanish colluding in the Axis, and supporting the capture of Gibraltar. Of course without such a strategic port the Mediterranean would have been closed to British shipping, Malta overwhelmed, North Africa seriously weakened and Italy strengthened. Again, if Spain had joined in the war on the Axis side, it is hard to see how Gibraltar could have outalsted a prolonged onslaught, although one suspects its defenders might have put up a serious fight. A couple of chapters consider how the war might have turned out if Mussolini and the Italians had performed better than they did, and although this is mere conjecture, a stronger Italy would have presented less of a millstone to the Third Reich.

One very interesting scenario is the co-opting of Nazi and Islamic interests in the conquest of the Middle East. It is well known that Hitler courted the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an extremist islamic figure. An uprising in Palestine and Iraq would have seriously undermined British control of vital oil reserves, and the route to India. A further chapter sees the Caucasus – on the flank of the Middle East and an oil field itself – captured by Kurt Student‘s paratroopers, following on from Crete. As for the Eastern Front overall, successive chapters see Moscow captured by the Wehrmacht, and the beleagured Sixth Army at Stalingrad breaks out and joins up with the rest of the German Army, avoiding a serious strategic defeat that in the event turned the tide on the Eastern Front.

Going back to the Mediterranean, Malta was lost under prolonged bombardment, after supply convoys failed to get through. The loss of Malta would have removed a thorn in the side of the Axis supply routes to North Africa, removed a key staging post from the Royal Navy, and gave the Italiand and Germans a platform to control the Med. The loss of Malta was something that was a very real risk, I feel.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the last chapter considers what might have happened had the US Generals prevailed and an early invasion been launched in the Cotentin peninsula before 1944. In this scenario, a smaller, poorly trained and unprepared allied army is eventually thrown back into the sea, after landing in too small an beachead. Hitler is then free to concentrate on the Eastern Front, while US and British relations are irreparably damaged. Oddly, this scenario sees Patton and Monty becoming firm friends, reminding us that it is, after all, an alternative history!

I found this a very thought provoking read. Some of the scenarios were more likely in my opinion than others, but considering how various decisions were made and events transpired between 1939 and 1945, the war could have taken a lot longer and cost many more lives, had the allies made more errors and Hitler made less. It would have taken a coincidental set of events, but did not such a course of events derail Operation Market Garden?

Hitler Triumphant is published by Pen and Sword

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Tracing your Tank Ancestors by Janice Tait and David Fletcher

Some books land on your doormat and you think ‘thank you!’. The Tracing your.. Ancestors series books are most definitely among them, and particularly anything of a military persuasion! This book is published in conjunction with, naturally enough, the Tank Museum in Bovington. The authors are Janice Tait and David Fletcher, resident Librarian and Historian at the Tank Museum respectively.

As we might expect, this book is very strong on the history of Tanks in the British Army.Right from the Corps beginning during the Second World War, its difficult experiences in the inter-war period and the mechanisation of the old Cavalry Regiments, the crucial armoured battles in the Second World War, the era of national service, and then the modern world of the Cold War and the British Army of the Rhine. The history is flawless, as is the coverage of technical issues, tank names and industrial aspects. It is also very good at covering those quirky little historical points that are unique to the British Army – namely the manner in which men consider themselves members of their Regiment rather than the Army as a whole, and the politics of mergers and inter-Corps rivalries.

Each chapter is structured chronologically, looking at the Tank history of a particular era. Then at the end the reader is given pointers towards where to research, be it institutions, documents, websites or books. Even though I consider myself an experience military historian, I learnt a few things here. Perhaps the family history aspect is slightly light compared to the general history, but then again, I’m not sure that there is much more than could be added. I would maybe have liked to have read more about what is held in the Tank Museum’s collections, perhaps some comprehensive listings rather than ‘here are some examples…’

One issue where I feel it does let down the reader, is when the authors allow themselves to become, dare I say it, slightly snobby about family history. Yes, for us experts, we can get frustrated at ‘amateurs’ getting things wrong. But it is their family history, more than it is ours. We shouldn’t expect every person to know the difference between the Tank Corps and the ROYAL Tank Corps. Or fussing over whether someone was actually a ‘Desert Rat’. Such points are not really that important to the reader, I feel. Thats exactly why we ask the experts.

But I applaud Pen and Sword for collaborating with the Tank Museum. It makes sense, in terms of accessing unparalleled expertise, and also gaining access to an unrivaled collection of photographs. This book will be of interest to all military historians, not just in terms of family history – I can imagine it coming in handy when researching any tank-servicemen. It’s going to stay on my bookshelf thats for sure.

Tracing your Tank Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Uncategorized, western front, World War One, World War Two

Hitler: Dictator or Puppet? by Andrew Norman

Plenty of theories have been advanced about Adolf Hitler – his background, his inspirations and his mental state. But to my knowledge this book by Andrew Norman is one of the first to assert that he was suffering from Schizophrenia.

Norman begins by taking a detailed look at Hitler’s childhood, his family and his upbringing. One assertion is that Hitler knew plenty of Jews early in life and was certainly no anti-semite until later in life. Indeed, anti-semitism had existed in Europe long before 1933, and certainly long before Hitler. Add to this mix his attitudes to Marxism, the impact of World War One, the crisis in Germany between 1918 and 1933 and we have what we could describe as either a toxic mix of causes, or an extremely unfortunate set of circumstances coming together to create a monster.

One of the most striking things in this book is the examination of Hitler’s early influences. One is particularly distubring, namely Lanz van Liebenfels. Liebenfels was a former monk, no less, who edited and produced a rather cheap, base anti-semite magazine entitled Ostara. Hitler never seems to have acknowledged his sources, particularly once he hit the ‘big stage’. Perhaps, as Norman suggests, Hitler did not want to lessen his own image. One influence I was not aware of is that of Houston Stewart Chaimberlain. I’m even more surprised, given that Chaimberlain was born in Southsea in 1855! Chaimberlain left Britain at the age of 14 to undergo treatment for poor health, and while visiting health resorts in Germany was accompanied by a Prussian tutor. Chaimberlain was influenced towards German history and culture. Chaimberlain was later a great supporter of Hitler.

The conclusion is that Hitler was unhinged by his disfunctional family background, under the influence of some particularly nasty influences from an early age, and particularly susceptible given his possible schizophrenia. The former condition would certainly explain his undoubted delusions, be it his faith in astrology, or his ‘command delusions, which led him to follow the advice of a mysterious ‘voice’ rather than his generals sound reasoning. Clearly not a decision making policy that one would vote for in the next general election, thats for sure.

Anyone who has even flicked through Mein Kampf will be well aware that it is full of ranting and raving, and is a disparate collection of diatribes on various subjects, from Judaism, Bolshevism and even sexually transmitted diseases and poverty. It certainly adds to the feeling that Hitler was not a person capable of rational thought processes. I guess this is where the title of the book comes from – rather than being a Dictator in control, Hitler was in fact a puppet of his influences and his illness.

Hitler’s relationships with women also come under scrutiny. Namely, that he had an improper relationship with his young niece, who died in suspicious circumstances, and also that his relationship with Eva Braun was unusual to say the least. This all adds to a picture of a person who, clearly, was not quite right in the head in any sense. Even his own close family seem to have had very little time for him.

But does all of this really matter? Firstly, we can chew over the causes of Hitler’s behaviour all we like, but it doesn’t change the fact that he and his regime commited some of the most heinous crimes in history. Contrary to popular opinion, men such as Stalin may have killed more people, but it is the horrific, industrial and hateful manner of the Nazi regime that still shocks today. And surely understanding how such a person came into being, is crucial to recognising evil today. Thankfully, I doubt very much whether someone in Hitler’s condition would reach prominence in the modern world, and for that we must be very grateful.

Hitler: Dictator or Puppet? is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, politics, Uncategorized, World War One, World War Two

Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan

This sure is a book that divides opinions among historians. Hence, I like it. I believe that Corrigan is quite right to take on the ‘mythbuster’ mantle. There are a trememdous amount of fallacies in history, and many surround the Great War. Not helped, it has to be said by cultural influences such as Blackadder, or ‘Oh what a lovely war!’.

Corrigan’s quote about the myth that Tommy marched up to the front in 1914 singing Tipperary, smoking a pipe, sat in a trench for four years, and went over the top and saw all his mates killed is one of my favourite passages in any history book. The original BEF in 1914, the old contemptibles, were a tiny force of 4 then 5 Divisions. The British Army expanded slowly, with Kitcheners volunteers largely entering the fray in 1916 on the Somme. Also, very few units spent very long in the front-line. My research suggests that a five day stretch in the front line would have been a long stint. Often, Battalions might spend up to a month away from the front training and resting. By no means did ever Tommy spend all of the war sat in a wet, muddy hole.

The conduct of the war also comes in for examination. Corrigan feels, perhaps with some value, that Haig could not really have done much better than he did. And, actually, I am rather inclined to agree. It goes against the perceived wisdom of an aloof cavalryman unconcerned with losses, but I have yet to hear, read or see of anyone suggesting HOW the ‘Donkeys’ could have fought the war differently. How the war was fought was a product of its time, with the mass armies of the nineteenth century, massive technological and industrial change but leaders and institutions that had not yet fully grasped these changes.

Corrigan’s argument on casualties is more difficult to support, I feel. Supported by statistical analysis, including percentages, Corrigan argues that the losses in the Great War were not as frightful as is generally thought. True, Britain did not lose as many men as France or Germany, but we need to remember that the vast majority of those killed were conscripts, whereas Germany and France had large standing armies. My research has shown that TWICE as many people from Portsmouth died between 1914 and 1921 as did between 1939 and 1945. Having researched thousands of casualties in Twentieth Century conflicts, I am cautious to add that losses are not just about numbers, but the social impact.

But whether we agree or disagree with certain points is, I think, besides the point. When a historiography is riddled with assumptions and becomes as stale as that of the Great War, anything that gives it a good kick up in the air cannot be a bad thing. Even if they’re not strong arguments, it makes us go back and re-evaluate our thinking again.

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Ian Daglish

I was very saddened to hear of the tragic passing of Ian Daglish yesterday.

Ian was the author of the Over the Battlefield series of books looking at the Normandy battles of Operations Epsom, Goodwood and Bluecoat. These took a very refreshing view of the battlefields and helped me a great deal in my understanding of the battle of Normandy. Ian was also very helpful to me personally when it came to researching Portsmouth’s World War Two dead, in particular a couple of men killed in those battles that he had written about himself.

The Second World War military history field is a lesser place for his passing. I’m sure the military history community will join me in offering my condolences to his family.

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Europe in Flames by Harold J Goldberg

Writing a ‘History of the ….war’ is always an ambitious idea, and one that is very rarely pulled off. There’s just so much to cover, it can only ever really be a framework at best. Not since Basil Liddell Hart‘s History of the Second World War has a historian really gone close to covering this vast conflict in one volume. In any case, it’s all been so well written about, what is there that we can add anyway?

I’m not what exactly the purpose of this book is. It gives an overview of the Second World War, year by year, in pretty basic fashion. But it also interweaves some oral history quotes. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why these quotes have been chosen and not others. There are, after all, millions of oral history testimonies relating to the Second World War, and choosing one or two relating to each major event in history does seem a bit minimalist and arbitrary.

However, if you know absolutely nothing about the Second World War in Europe – and, dare I say it, this might apply to a lot of budding historians stateside – I guess this isn’t too bad a place to start. It does focus very much on geo-political and strategic affairs, but then I guess that is what most history syllabuses tend to begin with anyway. It is telling that the bibliography includes mainly american historians, which would seem to point readers in that direction, rather than the more considerable – and, in my opinion, more scholarly – works that have come from Europe.

Europe in Flames is published by Stackpole Books

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‘Don’t judge me!’ – judging, the past and the present

Ever heard someone shreek ‘don’t judge me!’, or ‘don’t judge someone unless you haven’t met them’? It does seem to be a bit of a cliche nowadays, or should I say, an excuse to be an ass and then deflect any criticism?

If we are not supposed to judge anyone we have never met, does that preclude all us historians from researching people who died before we were born? Of course not. History would be in trouble if we didn’t research people who came before us. And of course, we don’t know them.

And I have to say, and this comes as someone who spent 18 months researching somebody who died in 1847, that you CAN come to some kind of conclusion about what kind of person someone was, as long as you start off with a clean slate and see everything in the context of the time. Judging the past by the standards of today is problematic to say the least.

I guess the same stands for the 2,549 WW2 servicemen I have spent two years researching, or the 5,000 WW1 servicemen I am currently looking at. Just because I can never meet them, does that mean they should be abandoned to anonymity forever? Of course not.

If we don’t research people then we don’t have social history, and a society without history is like a ship without an anchor. And by the same token, our deeds and our actions precede us in the present day too. Life is full of judgement, its impossible to get away from it. Job interviews, dates, they are all about judgement – if someone has the skills you are looking for, or if they take care over their appearance.

So, go ahead – judge away!

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More on Lt Col Dick Worrall

Thanks to the good chaps at the Great War Forum, I’ve managed to find out more about Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Worrall DSO and Bar MC and Bar.

According to the Montreal Gazette of 18 April 1919, Dick Worrall brought his Battalion home to Canada that weekend from Europe. According to the Newspaper Worrall joined the 14th Battalion of the Montreal Regiment in 1914. Apparently he actually joined via the Canadian Grenadier Guards, who provided a section for the Battalion. A ‘well set man of about 30 years of age walked in, saying that he wanted to enlist’. He soon became a Sergeant in No. 2 Section, before the Battalion had even left Canada.

After leaving for Europe and training in England, the 14th Battalion went to the Western Front, and Worrall was commissioned as an officer after the 2nd Battle of Ypres in Spring 1915. In June 1916 he was promoted to Captain, and was wounded in the same month. He was evidently seriously wounded, as he was away until November 1916, when he was promoted to Major. Initially he was given command of the Canadian Reinforcing Corps as an acting Lieutenant Colonel, but when he Battalion lost a large number of officers he returned as second-in-command. The CO, Lieutenant Colonel McCombe, was wounded during the German’s spring advance in 1918. Worrall took over command, a position he held until the end of the war.

The Montreal Gazette also tells us much about his family background. Apparently the Worralls originated from Birmingham. Intriguingly, Dick Worrall had previously served for a time in the Gloucestershire Regiment, and had emigrated from Britain to America. He then joined the US Army, but when war was declared in 1914 he went to Canada to fight for King and Country once more.

So, Worrall had served in three different armies, won a total of six decorations for gallantry, and had been promoted from Private to Colonel within 4 years. Remarkable.

The Toronto World of 18 February 1920 carries the story of Dick Worrall’s funeral. The service was attended by many senior officers. The Governor General and General Sir Arthur Currie were not able to attend. The band of the Royal Montreal Regiment played, and a firing party and escort accompanied the cortege from St James the Apostle’s Church to Fletchers Field, where three volley’s were fired. The Last Post was then played. The coffin was then taken from the gun carriage to a waiting hearse, and then on to Mount Royal Ceremony.

 

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Sergeant Oliver Poulton DCM

Distinguished Conduct Medal

A DCM (mage via Wikipedia)

I’ve managed to track down citations for Distinguished Conduct Medals won by Portsmouth soldiers during the Great War. Heres a good one to start…

Oliver Victor Poulton was born in Portsmouth in 1889. We know that in 1914 his parents were living at 15 Longs Road in Landport.

In 1911 Poulton was living at Stanhope Barracks in Aldershot. A Lance Corporal, he was single, 22, and serving with 22 Company of the Royal Engineers. His occupation was listed as bricklayer. He was serving in Gibraltar when the war began in August 1914, but was quickly sent to the Western Front in October 1914.

‘For conspicuous gallantry on the 18th December 1914, when engaged with a party of men cutting the enemys wires, he lay on the parapet of a German trench for one hour shooting at every head that appeared. Corporal Poulton subsequently assisted in rescuing a wounded comrade under fire’

Poulton’s DCM was announced in the London Gazette on 1 April 1915. That Poulton took it upon himself to shoot so many of the enemy, as we know that he was a musketry instructor and the best shot in his company. Once again, a Royal Engineer proved to be a devil with a gun rather than a shovel of a pick axe!

Sadly, Oliver Poulton was killed on 28 June 1917. He was 30, and by that time was a Sergeant with 15 Company RE. He is buried at Belgian Battery Corner Cemetery in Belgium.

 

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Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Worrall DSO and Bar MC and Bar

I think I may well have found Portsmouth’s most highly decorated twentieth century serviceman. And his story is quite a tale.

Richard ‘Dick’ Worrall was born in 1890, in Woolwich, the son of Richard and Annie Worrall. At some point between then and 1914 he ended up in Canada, for his wife was Lorraine Mae Worrall of Crescent Street, Montreal. We next find him as a Sergeant in the 14th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry, being awarded the Cross of St George fourth class, a Russian decoration. Secondary evidence has confirmed that was indeed commissioned from the ranks.

By January 1917 he had evidently been promoted, as the London Gazette referred to him as a Captain. In June 1918 he was a temporary Major and an acting Lieutenant-Colonel, commanding a Battalion – at the age of 27. I know that he was awarded both of his DSO‘s during the last few months of the war, commanding the 14th Canadian Infantry on the Western Front. The second DSO in particular has a fascinating citation:

On 1st September, 1918, for conspicuous gallantry during the attack on the Crow’s Nest and¬† Hendecourt Chateau Woods while in command of his battalion. He advanced his line half a mile, and under heavy fire maintained his position all day. The following day, though his left was exposed to withering machine-gun and artillery fire, he captured a village, taking prisoners a whole battalion. Still pushing on, he took the final objective, and established his position, having advanced some 5,000 yards from the jumping off line. He displayed fine courage and leadership.

Such a citation is unusually detailed for the First World War. During the war Worrall was also mentioned in despatches. He was decorated a remarkble total of six times, excluding campaign medals.

Sadly, Worrall died on 15 February 1920. He was just 29. He is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.

And so, I enter the unknown world of emigration records, and Canadian Genealogy!

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the life experience of Prime Minister – or lack thereof

Prime Minister Jim Callaghan sent a naval task...

Jim Callaghan - the last British PM to have served in the armed forces. And a Pompey boy to boot (Image via Wikipedia)

Yesterday we talked about the problem of Prime Minister not having any experience whatsoever of the military. I decided to take a look at the education and early employment of Prime Ministers before they entered politics. It makes for interesting reading:

Anthony Eden – Eton, Oxford (Oriental Languages), Kings Royal Rifle Corps Officer WW1 (Military Cross, Brigade Major)

Harold Macmillan – Eton, Oxford (Classics), Grenadier Guards Officer WW1 (wounded three times), ADC to Governor-General of Canada, junior partner with Macmillan publishers

Alec Douglas Home – Eton, Oxford (Modern History), first class cricketer.

Harold Wilson – Royds Hall Grammar School, Oxford (PPE), economic history lecturer at Oxford, Civil Service (research assistant for William Beveridge during WW2).

Ted HeathChatham House Grammar School, Oxford (PPE), Royal Artillery 1941-1946 (Anti-Aircraft, North West Europe), Civil Service.

James Callaghan – Portsmouth Northern Secondary Modern (no Uni), Inland Revenue, Inland Revenue Staff Federation, Lieutenant RN (East Indies, Admiralty).

Margaret ThatcherKesteven and Grantham Girls School, Oxford (Chemistry), Research Chemist.

John Major - Rutlish Grammar School (no Uni), Insurance Clerk, London Electricity Board, Banker, London Borough Councillor

Tony Blair - Fettes College, Oxford (Law), Barrister.

Gordon Brown РKircaldy High School, Edinburgh (History PHD and Rector), Politics lecturer, journalist for Scottish TV, Open University tutor.

David Cameron – Eton, Oxford (PPE), MP’s researcher, Conservative Research Department, Special Advisor to Chancellor of the Exchequer and then the Home Secretary, Special Adviser at Carlton TV.

Interesting stuff indeed. It does appear that in recent years – Blair onwards – politics has become a career in itself, which people aspire to from a young age. Yet is it not fair to say that elected representatives are meant to be just that – one of us, elected to represent us? How can they do that when they have not lived like the rest of us?

It does seem to me that it is more sensible for politicians to have some kind of prior career, and hence experience of the ‘real world’. Even though most PM’s with a previous career were in the main professionals or office workers, its at least more worldly – and grounded – than a few years acting as a lacky for a Minister. The funny thing is, its not new for politicians to have had little of a career – in the Nineteenth Century it was perfectly acceptable for aristocrats and the gentry to enter politics having had no career at all.

How about Prime Ministers and military service? The last British Prime Minister to have served in the military was Jim Callaghan. Going backwards, all post-war Prime Ministers, save Home and Wilson, served in either WW1 or WW2. It is not difficult to imagine that Eden’s and Macmillan’s service on the Western Front must have helped in their political service during WW2. But then again, Eden did make a serious hash of Suez.

When David Cameron was elected, commentators noted that he was the first Old Etonian PM since Alec Douglas Home, something we thought we might never see again. Indeed, it seems that immediately post-war being an Old Etonian was ncessary to be PM. But when will we next have a Prime Minister with a military background? Or even an opposition leader, or senior Cabinet Minister?

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Message from James

The market cross in Chichester, West Sussex, s...

The market cross in Chichester (Image via Wikipedia)

Hi all!

Just to let you know that I might not be online as much as usual for the next few weeks. On Saturday I’m moving to Chichester and will probably be without internet for a few weeks. although I will still try and get online when I can, obviously this might not be as often as usual, while I’m living out of boxes…

On a slightly more positive note, I have all but finished work on ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, and hope to get the manuscript and photos sent to the publisher well before the deadline. I’ve been out the past few nights taking some last minute photographs around Portsmouth, and I’m just waiting on a few pictures from one institution and then we’re all set to go down to the Post Office and give the USB stick some recorded-delivery treatment!

Now, most people would probably advise, after an intense six months writing 50,000 words, to take a good break. But much to Sarah’s dismay, I’ve resumed work on the World War One database! I’ve now entered all of the Portsmouth men who were killed in the Army, numbering 2,620. To put that number in context, 2,549 men and women from Portsmouth died between 1939 and 1947 in ALL services. Researching WW1 soldiers is much harder, as there seem to be plenty of names that just do not appear on the CWGC register, or from thre sheer number of names to wade through. Something tells me this is going to be a long-term project, but I hope to have it done by the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of war in 2014.

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The 2nd Norfolk Regiment from Le Paradis to Kohima by Peter Hart

This is yet another book in Pen and Sword‘s ‘Voices from the Front Series’, and this one again is authored by the Imperial War Museum‘s Oral History expert Peter Hart. The 2nd Norfolks began the war as a regular Battalion, and went to Northern France in 1939. During a tour on the Maginot Line the Norfolks won some of the British Army’s first gallantry medals of the war. Back with the BEF in May 1940, the Norfolks found themselves in the thick of the fighting back towards Dunkirk.

As interesting as Dunkirk was, it’s the chapters about the British Army in Britain in late 1940 and 1941 that really interested me. How a shattered Army rebuilt itself, and how regular Battalions found themselves diluted with territorials and conscripts, and how county regiments found themselves taking in recruits from all over the country and the Army abandoned its local recruiting policy. The Army – and its officers and men – had a lot of learning to do in a very short space of time, and the memories of ordinary soldiers during this period that I find fascinating. Much of this period was spent firstly guarding the coast against invasion, and secondly exercising and familiarising with new equipment.

After the threat of invasion subsided with Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Britain found herself facing a second theatre of war in the Far East. Accordingly the 2nd Norfolks were sent to the Far East. They landed first in India, and there are some fascinating stories about the passage East and the period spent acclimatising in the sub-continent. The Norfolks spent some time quelling civil distubance in India too, with the rise of Gandhi’s national congress beginning to pose problems for the Raj.

After acclimatising to the Far East – a difficult process for western constitutions – the Norfolks went up to Kohima, in time for the pivotal battles around the Indian-Burmese Border there and at Imphal. What follows is a most insightful account of a Battalion fighting in extremely trying circumstances, at a critical point of the war. One account tells of how a Norfolk soldier hid with his section in the jungle and observed hundreds of Japanese pass by, only yards away – such was the intensity of the war in Burma.

I am a great fan of these Oral Histories, and particularly those that focus on the experiences of ordinary soldiers and junior officers – so often the people at the point of the sword, but for so long the people we have heard the least from. Thank god for projects like this that finally give them a voice. And the experiences of this ‘ordinary’ Battalion, from the BEF to Burma, encapsulates the British Army’s journey from 1939 to 1945 perfectly.

The 2nd Norfolk Regiment – from Le Paradis to Kohima is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two